SPEEDWAY | It almost seemed an indignity.
A former Indianapolis 500 winner told by IndyCar officials to take a refresher course before practicing at top speed? That’s like an art gallery telling Picasso to color inside the lines before he could paint on his own after a layoff.
Buddy Lazier, the 1996 winner, was told that this month, even as 1999 winner Kenny Brack and two-time winner Al Unser Jr. were ordered to do the same thing in previous years.
Lazier, absent from competition for four years, did so, as Brack and Little Al did before him. So great is the lure of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that easing back to speed was acceptable.
That was Saturday morning. Lazier, on a limited budget, with only one engine, and eight years removed from his last start in the 500, sat out the rest of the day and the chase for the pole. Sunday was his chance to return to the thick of it.
Lazier did just that. The first driver to attempt to qualify, Lazier turned four laps fast enough to make the field of 33. The average speed of 223.442 mph puts him in the middle of the 11th and last row.
That’s not prime real estate, but in a year without bumping – Michel Jourdain’s car, the 34th entry, never got up to speed – it was also comfortably safe.
“I was disappointed that we slowed down from this morning,” Lazier said.
That driver’s lament is typical on a hot, humid afternoon, but Lazier’s career story is atypical. An unwarranted and invisible asterisk is appended to Lazier’s name in the list of Indianapolis 500 winners. Lazier drove to victory in 1996 with a partially-healed back that had been broken two months earlier in Phoenix.
The asterisk was not for his injury, but for the race itself. It was the first 500 under the banner of the Indy Racing League, the series created by Speedway boss Tony George to combat what he deemed a potential diminishing of oval-track racing by CART. The resulting argument over control turned into The Split, which sent the IRL and CART on separate paths until the reunification talks of 2008 brought American open-wheel racers back together.
Lazier’s victory in that 1996 500 was mocked by the CART crowd, but the same day, the inaugural U.S. 500, CART’s answer to the traditions of Indianapolis, opened with a 12-car accident before the green flag waved. Lazier led on five occasions at Indy, and held off CART regular Davy Jones, running at Indy because his sponsor insisted on his team being there, in a three-lap trophy dash to the finish after the race’s final caution.
But beating a field that included rookie of the year Tony Stewart was scoffed at by many. One writer compared it to a club pro winning the Masters against a field of caddies.
Lazier captured the IRL championship in 2000, winning eight times in the series beginning with that 500 and continuing through a four- victory season in 2001, when he finished second to champion Sam Hornish in the standings. After that, his best finishes in 48 starts were a pair of thirds, at Kentucky and Chicagoland speedways in 2002.
His last top-five finish was at Indianapolis in 2005, his last time in the big show. But until Sunday, he hadn’t tried to qualify for the 500 since 2009, when he failed to make the field.
Qualifying on Sunday reminded him of his success 17 years ago, he said.
“I think they’re both fantastic because they’re both testing me as a person,” Lazier said. “I like that. I enjoy the process very much.”
Katherine Legge, who signed with Sam Schmidt’s team on Saturday, was the last and slowest to make the field. Her speed of 223.176 put her on the bubble that was never threatened by Jourdain, who couldn’t get above 219.843 in practice, and slowed down as the afternoon wore on.
He never made a qualifying attempt.
“We changed whatever we had time to, but it just felt the same, and we couldn’t drive it,” Jourdain said.
The biggest excitement after that, aside from defending champion Dario Franchitti – 17th in the field after Saturday’s blah qualifying run of 226.069 – turning 136 laps in an effort to find speed, was Will Power scraping the Turn 4 wall exiting a turn with 35 minutes to go in the session. He white walled his right rear tire and coasted to the pits.